Wednesday 19 October 2016

The Mozart question by Michael Morpurgo

The Mozart question by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman (Walker Books, 2007)

75 pages (but a small size, so quite short); gorgeous watercolour illustrations of Venice and sobering, muted ones of the scenes at the concentration camps

Subjects: World War Two, Jews, concentration camps, music, junior fiction (Year 6-8, but have to be ready to hear about the Holocaust)

I can’t better the synopsis on Michael Morpurgo’s own website:
“When Lesley is sent to Venice to interview world-renowned violinist Paulo Levi on his fiftieth birthday, she cannot believe her luck. She is told that she can ask him anything at all – except the Mozart question. But it is Paulo himself who decides that it is time for the truth to be told. And so follows the story of his parents as Jewish prisoners of war, forced to play Mozart violin concerti for the enemy; how they watched fellow Jews being led off to their deaths and knew that they were playing for their lives.”

In the note at the back, the author talks about how the story grew from “the sight of a small boy in a square… in Venice, sitting one night, in his pyjamas on his tricycle, listening to a busker. He sat totally enthralled by the music that seemed to him, and to me, to be heavenly.”

  • Kids reads says “Morpurgo's tale is straightforwardly told, almost fable-like in its simplicity and emotional impact. Its simple language and elegant structure would make The Mozart question an excellent book for parents and teachers to read with children, opening the door to more questions about family history, historic atrocities, and the miraculous powers of music to resist and overcome even the most shocking evils.”

About the author

What more can you say about Michael Morpurgo – he’s just amazing.
This page on his website talks about themes of war in his books. 

About the illustrator
And similarly for Michael Foreman – equally amazing!
This article in the Guardian profiles his 50-year career. 

Other books you might like:
War horse and Private Peaceful, both by Michael Morpurgo,  War gameThe general and The amazing tale of Ali Pasha by Michael Foreman

Have you read it?
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!

Monday 3 October 2016

Anzac biscuits by Phil Cummings

Anzac biscuits by Phil Cummings, illustrated by Owen Swan (Scholastic, 2013)

32 pages with full page illustrations

Subjects: World War One, Australia, family, food, picture books (Year 1-3)

This book seems to be set during World War One but that is never actually stated, although there are clues (barbed wire, choking smells, snow, trenches suggest Europe; the “smell of burning red gum” suggests Australia).

The story, told in very few words, alternates between Rachel and her mother baking biscuits in their cosy farmhouse, and Rachel’s father alone on the battlefield, tramping through the mud and sheltering from the weather and the gunfire. The colours alternate between warm colours and colder hues, but the two worlds are linked by mirrored words, images and actions and by a framed photograph of her father on the farmhouse wall.  

I’ve said “alone” because the soldier is completely alone in almost every scene (in one spread, he is trudging behind two other men, but we can’t see their faces.) It feels odd and unusual to have a battlefield shown as being so empty, but it does underline his loneliness and separation from his family. 

On the final page, the biscuits have found their way to Rachel’s father on the other side of the world. The back page blurb says: “This is a touching story of a family torn apart by war but brought together through the powerful simplicity of ANZAC biscuits.”

At first reading, I found it a bit disconcerting that Rachel and her mother could be singing, dancing and laughing. But actually I think that is a good message: that you can miss someone, but you don’t have to be miserable all the time, or feel guilty about having happy moments. (I think that’s why the empty battlefield bothered me, because many soldiers did find companionship with their mates).

My little bookcase calls it “a tender story of war” that “shows the private moments of families who are left behind to worry about their fathers, brothers, uncles and sons.”

Kids’ book review says it offers a gentle narrative that isn’t too scary or confronting.

Aussie reviews calls it "a lovely tale, and a beautiful way of introducing both the subject of war and the history of Anzac biscuits".

“The soldier bravely lifted his head to peer across the fields.” I’m still wondering about this line - is he brave or not? Shouldn’t he be keeping his head down?

About the author
You can see Phil Cummings' website here. You can also watch him talk about Anzac biscuits and his inspiration or the book. 

About the illustrator
You can read about Owen Swan and some of the other books he has illustrated here

Other books you might like
The Anzac puppy by Peter Millett is another non-confrontational book about war for this age group.

Have you read it?                          
Have you read this book? Let me know what you think!